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A shiva with no end in sight: A psychologist visits Israel

Returning home after seeing what I saw, I wonder if we can impart the complexity of this moment to those who did not witness it

I recently returned from an 8-day trip to Israel. It was sponsored by The Jewish Education Project and everyone on the trip was a Jewish educator from North America. They work in day schools, supplemental schools and Hillels. We were from every denomination and all ages.

We went to Nova, to Ofakim, to Tel Aviv and to Jerusalem. We met with hostage families, survivors, evacuees, children. We met with people running NGOs to help support their fellow citizens, both Arab and Jew. Everywhere we went there were posters of those kidnapped and murdered, and teddy bears covered with blood. Mt. Herzl is full of mourners and fresh graves.

And there were people in restaurants, and people playing with their children on the beach. Living their lives, even in deep grief.

I came home aware that Israel is in a 5-month shiva, a shiva with no end in sight. They pray for the return of the hostages, they mourn the loss of life, and they send their sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, husbands and wives, friends and partners into battle. It is, in the words of a friend, ambient mourning – mourning that sheds its light everywhere.

I walked along the Tayelet on Shabbat and saw a sand sculpture of a raped and murdered woman next to a group of young people playing volleyball. This is Israel today.

When the elevator door opened in the hotel, there were photos of murdered members of the kibbutz. And there were tricycles and balls in the hallway. This is Israel today.

The table in Hostage Square is no longer simply a Shabbat dinner table, waiting to welcome the hostages home. Half of it is now a filthy mess, representing the daily experiences of the hostages, with bottles of dirty water and pieces of tin for plates. An artist has created a tunnel for people to walk through, imagining the lives of those who are still in Gaza. Every aspect of it hurts. This is Israel today.

On Saturday night there was a loud demonstration calling for new elections just one block from a much more somber gathering calling for the return of the hostages. This is Israel today.

Almost everyone we spoke with talked about being abandoned by the government – from Bedouins to evacuees to hostage families to teachers trying to create something like normalcy for children who are living in hotels. Kids play hide and seek and ride bikes in hotel lobbies. This is Israel today.

I never felt unsafe. Not once. But Google Maps shows the bomb shelters in every location and I downloaded the app that warns us before the siren goes off. In each location, the guides told us where we should go if there was a siren. This is Israel today.

We took a graffiti tour. Even the graffiti in Tel Aviv has changed. Picasso’s Guernica has been reinterpreted in light of October 7. There is graffiti that represents the warnings given by women of the impending invasion, warnings that were ignored. And prayers for peace. This is Israel today.

I was more deeply impacted by this trip to Israel than any of my previous ones. Both in pain and in doubt. We were welcomed as family and we felt like tourists watching a tragedy unfold. We heard rockets and ate ice cream. This is Israel today.

I admit, I have no idea how I will be changed by this visit. The educators I accompanied were focused on how they could impart their experiences to learners. Can we teach the complexity of this moment to people who did not witness it? How do we teach history when it is our present reality? We are living history. Like Israel today.

About the Author
Betsy Stone is a retired psychologist who consults with camps, synagogues, clergy and Jewish institutions. She is the author of Refuah Shlema, a compilation of her eJP articles, recently published by Amazon.